Posted in: Disc Reviews by Gino Sassani on April 23rd, 2009
I’m not a wrestling fan. There is very little about that world that holds any charm for me. I find the grandiose posturing to be rather dull. The characters aren’t all that interesting to me, and I don’t find myself compelled to spend 100 bucks on a “free for all” pay per view event. With that said, this film did bring back a flood of memories for me. When I was a kid, perhaps 11 or 12, I looked at wrestling a little differently. I had an uncle who would watch it from time to time, but the television version never held much for me even then. I grew up in a relatively middle sized town in eastern Pennsylvania. If you play Monopoly, you’ve heard of the Reading Railroad. I grew up in Reading. By the way, it’s pronounced Red not Reed (ing). Nearby in a place called the Hamburg Field House, the regional wrestling federation of the time would film a month’s worth of television episodes in one night. Our parents found out that for about 5 bucks they could drop us off for 5 hours or so and we would be entertained. It didn’t hurt that the place featured 25 cent hotdogs. So my friend David and I would hang out at the joint every second Tuesday and watch live wrestling. To an 11 year old kid, it was as much about being trusted out on our own than it was the event. Still, we did become familiar with the regional names and characters. I even got smacked upside the head by one ranting wrestler’s shoes. It hurt, but it was a bump I wore with some kind of twisted feeling of honor for three days. I don’t even remember the name of the wrestler, but I remember that bump. Times have changed and Championship Wrestling has been gobbled up by the Vince McMahon empire that most of those regional outfits have succumbed to. I haven’t talked to Dave in years, and honestly I haven’t even thought of those summer Tuesday nights at the Field House in a long time, filled up with quarter hotdogs and plenty of soda. Then came The Wrestler.
Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Rourke) is at the end of his career as a superstar wrestler. He’s known for his trademark move, the Ram Jam, where he climbs up on the ropes and leaps down on his helpless opponent. You can feel the pain, not only of his current bout, but the decades of abuse he’s put his body through. In the ring he’s beloved by thousands and respected by his peers. Outside of the ring he’s alone. He seeks comfort in the guise of stripper, Pam (Tomei). Pam is also at the end of her career, finding it harder to compete with the younger girls at the club. She’s drawn to Randy, but resists hooking up with one of her clients. When Randy finally pushes his body over the edge, he has a heart attack. The doctors warn him that he’s got to stop pumping the steroids and growth hormones into his body, and worse, that he has to stop wrestling. Randy tries to acclimate himself to the outside world. He increases his hours at the Acme by working the meat counter and attempts to reconcile with his college age daughter. He even has hopes of breaking through Pam’s resistance. Perhaps it’s too late and he’s too old, but he learns that the only place he was ever really good at anything was in the ring. There he’s accepted and loved for what he is. Randy accepts a rematch, celebrating the 20th anniversary of one of his most famous matches. He’s determined to go through with it and please the crowd, if it kills him.
For many, this should have been 2008’s picture of the year. It’s good, but I rather liked Doubt a little better. I do, however, feel that Mickey Rourke was robbed of getting the Best Actor award. Hollywood instead decided to reward Sean Penn in an inferior performance for all of his work in their various pet political projects. It’s a real shame. I hadn’t seen one performance that brought me so inside of a character in all of 2008. This movie is all character study from the first frame to the controversial final frame, where we are invited to decide for ourselves the ultimate outcome. I know that decision has brought the film unwarranted criticism. It’s compared to the finale of The Sopranos, where the image abruptly goes blank and we are left hanging. There’s no comparison. David Chase left us hanging because he’s a sadistic demagogue who wanted only to torture and toy with us. Darren Aronofsky isn’t toying with us at all. If you watch it again, you’ll discover that he showed us everything we needed. We all know what happened to The Ram. It was the only ending this movie could have had. Aronofsky made all of the right calls every step of the way, and the most important of those calls was in casting Mickey Rourke.
Some mention should go out to Marisa Tomei. It’s been a lot of years since we saw her in My Cousin Vinnie. The years haven’t been too kind, and she is now a bit of a contradiction in form. She still has the body she was so famous for, but the years have certainly taken a toll on the face. I was reminded of the Seinfeld episode when George was trying to get a date with her. She does deliver a solid performance here, however. Her character is going through much the same emotions and changes as Randy. It’s far more subtle, but the nuances are there.
This is often a difficult film to watch. Aranofsky doesn’t pull any punches, so to speak. The make-up effects are absolutely startling in their realism. You won’t want to watch as these wrestlers do horrific things to their bodies in order to entertain the crowds. Glass shards, staple guns, razor wire, and blunt objects of all sizes and shapes provide the punishment these guys put their bodies through. The bouts might be fake and scripted, but the beating they take is as real as it gets. Going back to my Hamburg Field House memories, I had to wonder just what those guys endured over the 30 years since I saw them strut their stuff for $5 gates. It makes me consider if any of them are even still alive. And that, you see, is the mark of an excellent film and wonderful performance. You can’t watch this movie and not be affected by its images.
The Wrestler is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. This is a pretty good 1080p image brought to you through a strong AVC/MPEG-4 codec. This is an ultra realistic looking film. It’s oven very dull and drab in appearance. Even in the normal life scenes of the film it almost looks like the entire film was made on an overcast day. Don’t mistake that for poor quality in the transfer. When you get to some of these body tortures you’re going to be sick with the level of detail and clarity the film provides. The cinematography is quite effective in providing the depressing mood of the movie. Black levels are above average. There is an increased level of grain that appears to be scene specific. It only adds to the brutal nature of these images.
The DTS-HD Master Audio track is nearly as effective. The sounds of the crowd while Randy does his business in the ring surround us. We can feel the energy Randy gets from their applause. The score is often very subtle and often silent. Again, it’s a moody presentation that does its job well. Dialog is fine. We can’t always completely make out what Randy says, but his speech patterns are those of a man depressed and lacking self confidence. The occasional sub comes alive, but mostly the film happens in the mid ranges.
All of these features are in SD.:
Within The Ring: (42:43) Many of the bouts were performed as actual staged events in front of a paying crowd. Just another element that made this film feel so dang real. Even the Acme scenes were in a real store with the actual employees as extras. This feature examines all of these facets of the movie that made it so natural and realistic.
Wrestler Round Table: (25:23) Some actual wrestler names sit at a table and offer their opinions on the movie. We know that no one who dissed it would have been there, but these are sincere moments.
Music Video: (3:59) The Boss, Bruce Springsteen, offers the video to the film’s opening song.
Movies serve a variety of purposes. Obviously they are first and foremost intended to entertain. That doesn’t mean that they are forbidden from providing other services. Often films can educate or at least provide awareness for an important issue. Movies can move us emotionally. We go to movies to experience fright and exhilaration. These visceral films can leave very powerful impressions. If the film is particularly good, we are left with an almost shared memory. We leave the theater or our own viewing rooms with an uncanny feeling that we actually experienced an event rather than sat there as outside observers. That’s a far more difficult task than you can imagine. How do I know? Because it’s so rare that we do experience a film so completely. The Wrestler is a rare film. You won’t watch it. You will live it, for better or worse. It’s almost fresh. “Fresh as monkey’s breath, brother.”